a bumper crop

Image: photo by Steve at botogol's flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.Southerners, it is that time of year again: be on the lookout for friends and neighbors giving away bountiful supplies of beautiful, green zucchini. Watch for zucchini peeking out of slightly ripped plastic bags left swinging on door knobs or sitting innocently in church pews. But tread carefully: accepting zucchini from friends and strangers alike may mean more than one thinks.

Zucchini is a versatile vegetable, comfortable on grills, cookie sheets, and iron skillets alike. Put it in bread, stir fry, hash browns, casserole, salads, coleslaw, meatloaf, anywhere, and it will find itself a home. It even makes okra edible. But that is only part of the story. Zucchini has a special, oft overlooked purpose in maintaining our existing social networks and building new ones.

As a rural southerner who, by happenstance, grew up to be a social scientist, I now think of zucchini as a simple form of social capital. By social capital, I mean shared potential benefits available to an individual based on involvement in networks such as friendships or group memberships. Benefits range from the physical (getting candy from old ladies at church) to the virtual (a coworker’s tip on a great fishing hole). In both cases, one may access these benefits simply by being part of the network.

Zucchini fits perfectly in this whole social capital idea. We share zucchini with people within our networks partly because we like doing good deeds for others (altruism) but also because it benefits everyone in the network regardless of whether anyone eats the zucchini or not. Zucchini is really about generalized reciprocity: I give you zucchini today knowing that you will do something for me at some point in the future. Perhaps you will see my car stalled on the side of the road and stop to help. Perhaps you will let me know my kid is skipping class and smoking cigarettes behind the stadium. Or perhaps you will give me more zucchini. Regardless of its form or value, I know this zucchini will, in some form, come back to me at a later date.

Still, zucchini goes even deeper. Sharing zucchini with friends and family helps maintain important relationships. Giving someone a bag of zucchini is a southerner’s way of saying, “hey, we are on the same team. If I need help, I expect you will help me, because I would certainly help you, a promise sealed by this huge bag of zucchini.” Social scientists call this bonding social capital: by sharing zucchini, we are performing maintenance on existing relationships and networks by cramming seemingly endless supplies of tasteless green veggies down the pipeline.

Les obvious is that zucchini also helps build new networks with total strangers. Social scientists call this bridging social capital: creating new networks outside the usual, existing connections. Friend and family networks can only do so much, so adding new networks means more opportunities to access social capital. For example, I recently moved to a new town to take a new job in a department filled with strangers. As soon as the frost date passed, I planted a bumper harvest of zucchini. Two months later, I left zucchini my colleague’s office mailboxes with little notes from their new office mate. I sent them emails, too: “hey there, hope you enjoyed that wonderfully fresh and organic zucchini from your new friend.”  As the harvest progresses, I plan on upping the ante by tying a nice bow on the zucchini and sprinkling in a few cucumbers and peppers. Why do this? Well, now when I feel hopelessly lost in the new computer system, I will seek out my new zucchini network members for help. “Remember me? I am the guy who gave you zucchini, and I’m hoping you will lend me a hand, new friend. You know I would do the same for you.” Indeed, I would. That’s how social capital works.

A warm summer and plentiful rain means a bumper crop of zucchini is afoot. Take some to the neighbors, some to fishing buddies, and some to the new family who moved in down the street. When community members come knocking with an armload of zucchini, accept it graciously, and pay it forward. In the unlikely event there are some who don’t want in on this all-important zucchini network, well, that’s fine. Let them eat eggplant, instead.

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Image: photo by Steve at botogol's flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.
James N. Maples

James N. Maples

James N. Maples is a musician, applied sociologist, and writer from the foothills of East Tennessee. James presently resides just north of home up in the Bluegrass, where he is a sociology professor at Eastern Kentucky University.